The one to call if You want to talk to Europe? – the President of the European Commission

by | Sep 17, 2023

The famous question, allegedly set by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” has been looking for its answer for decades, even if  it had probably never really been asked. The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty at the end of 2009 seemingly provided an answer to it – two possible answers actually. José Manuel Barroso, then President of the European Commission, smartly avoided the politically painful part, using Kissinger’s former position, pointing the finger on the one closest to a “minister of foreign affairs” at that time, the newly created position of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. At the same time, regarding a call from the President of the United States, the fresh holder of the other shiny new position, the President of the European Council, Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy stated in a news conference: “I’m anxiously waiting for the first phone call”, while Barroso was more careful. He has reacted by stating the obvious that the EU is “a union of states, so by definition our system is more complex”.

Being careful was understandable. The EU was just a few years after the failure of the ratification of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, and the bumps during the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty have clearly shown that extreme care is still advised while talking about anything that makes Europe “federal” or seem to be federal or anything comparable to a continental superstate. Still, our analysis does not have to calculate with these political aspects, so we are free to say that the position of the President of the European Commission – as head of the executive branch of the European Union – is closest to the position of the President of the United States – with some clear differences.

We are going to draw an analysis on the current state of the position, partly using the current “State of the European Union” address and also make an educated guess on the future of the position with or without the current President, Ursula von der Leyen.

What are the responsibilities of the President of the European Commission?

The President  of the European Commission has many responsibilities, many tasks: first of all, the job means representing the European Commission and keeping the institution together by organizing its work. The President’s “primus inter pares” role in relation with the other commissioners (who are delegated by the governments of Member States) makes him/her a leading political figure, responsible for forming European policies – which are subject to realization by the legislative bodies of the European Union, the European Parliament and the Council. The participation of the President at the meetings of the European Council makes him/her a top political figure with direct access to the leaders of the continent capable of understanding their respective interests and possibly finding a way to reach consensus in the wilderness of those.

At the same time, the President also has to confront those leaders and states: the “guardian of the Treaties” role and the possibility to initiate infringement procedures against their states vested to the European Commission can be and usually is an infinite source of tensions. Additionally, some new possibilities, most importantly the new conditionality procedure (also known as the “new rule of law procedure”) have seemingly strengthened the Commission, but it must always be remembered, that what goes around, comes around – and in politics, that may easily mean unfavourable reactions. For example, the only subject of a currently ongoing conditionality procedure, the Hungarian government has openly started to talk about not supporting the re-nomination of Ursula von der Leyen – while earlier the European Parliament has threatened the Commission even with initiating legal proceeding against it (even starting it) in case of not initiating the conditionality procedure against Hungary.

The weight of the position is clearly shown by the fact that even creating the European Commission is impossible without first electing its future President who is then responsible for putting together a college of commissioners being acceptable to both the European Parliament and the governments of the Member States.

Similarities and differences to the President of the United States

A comparison between the President of the European Union and the President of the United States is not easy, as constitutionally speaking there are similarities and differences. The most important thing is that the constitutional models of the EU and of the USA are not really comparable, as the one of the US represents a so-called presidential system while the institutional structure of the European Union rather follows the more “European” parliamentary system – most EU Member States employ the latter (except for Malta and those states which follow a semi-presidential model, most notably France).

The common element in all these models is that the President (of both the USA and of the European Commission) is the head of the executive branch of power. But differences start right at this point. The US President has wide powers as head of executive, which is limited by the legislative powers of the Congress and competences of the individual Member States of the United States. Being a federal state with a strong federal government, these competences can be taken over (“federalized”) with legislative support, meaning that in case of political support of the President in the Congress (most importantly the Senate), this is not always an unbeatable problem. On the other hand, the EU is still far from being a federal state, and its founding treaty provisions, namely Article 5 of the Treaty on the European Union make the US-like federalization impossible, expressly stating “Competences not conferred upon the Union in the Treaties remain with the Member States”. This means that the President of the European Commission still has to count with Member States even if having Union-level legislative support with his/her policy-making ambitions if those touch upon member state sovereignty. This has resulted in Commission Presidents usually showing a lower political profile and less active political behaviour than US Presidents.

During the past years, this has seemingly started to change, as a Union-level response was needed for various crises. José Manuel Barroso, especially during his second term from 2009, initiated (and successfully created) e.g. Union policies on economic governance. The COVID crisis (and its economic consequences) of 2020 and the Russian aggression against Ukraine has catapulted the European Commission and President von der Leyen into a pivotal role, the body acting more and more as an active government of a federal entity. One of the symbols of this is the “state of the European Union” speech itself which is something clearly coming from the political practice (while also being a vague constitutional requirement) of the USA.

Additionally, while the President of the USA is directly elected (though via the electoral system representing the federal nature of the country), the President of the European Commission does not wield such direct political legitimacy. This is often referred to in all kinds of near-fake news communication elements as the so-called “democratic deficit” of the European Union. The fact is that in most EU Member States, the head of the executive branch (the prime minister) is not directly elected, but elected by the legislative – hence the name “parliamentary” model. This applies to the President of the European Commission. The nomination for the presidency of the European Commission takes place always after the European parliamentary elections. This is a typical solution of parliamentary models: the people elect the legislator and then the legislator elects the head of the executive branch. In the European Union, the legislator being the Council (representing the Member States) and the European Parliament (representing the European populus) together. As a result of this, lack of direct legitimacy of the executive – as usual with parliamentary systems – do not make it equal to the legislator, not always helping political activism.

The “State of the European Union” address

The address given in front of the plenary meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg is also a result of the reforms by the Lisbon Treaty. It means an annual speech addressed by the President of the European Commission, due in every September. It was introduced by the 2010 Framework Agreement on relations between the European Parliament and the European Commission, and the goal was to make European political life more democratic and transparent than it previously had been. It is not only about the speech but the President of the Commission is also obliged to send a letter of intent to the President of the European Parliament and the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in which he/she lays down the plans for the upcoming year, detailing legislation and other initiatives.

The address of the President is followed by a plenary debate on the situation of the Union, which is called “State of the Union debate”. It gives an opportunity to members of the European Parliament to immediately react to the President’s ideas and also give visibility to those – so that the wider public can get information about those.

The address itself has not caused any surprises. Ursula von der Leyen has clearly intended to use it for her policy goals and tried to get away from questions related to her political future, including running for the position again. It has focused on ongoing EU legislative processes on issues already on the table, emphasis put on sustainability and environment, European competitiveness, AI and digital technologies. Her attention did not avoid possible global role of the EU and issues related to migration. Something of a new geopolitical initiative was introduced by the President, covered in the robe of fair trade, related to China, which can be seen as the possible start of a potential trade war – currently this may serve as something to make EPP strongmen and some right-winger political groups happy, but so far it is not easy to tell how ambitious this idea is. One thing is for sure, Commission Presidents so far usually have cooperated with Member States in their trade wars, not initiated those. One more step towards the President of the European Commission growing to become an independent actor…?

Additionally, the president has re-visited a subject that has been somewhat neglected during the past years, but seemingly becoming more and more important: possible enlargement of the EU. In a recent address of the President of the European Council, it is easy to spot similarities, especially if You check our earlier analysis of that. It seems that there is a coordination between the two bodies which is extremely important with that very complicated process – especially that some ideas expressed by Ursula von der Leyen here seem to be somewhat unrealistic. As if she knew that this might not be her responsibility any more. But more in this later…

The future of Ursula von der Leyen as the President of the European Commission from 2024?

As a result of the abovementioned, when it comes to the presidency of the European Commission, the heads of states and governments in the European Council have to nominate someone (with a qualified majority voting) who has good chances to be accepted by the European Parliament as well, which decides with an absolute majority vote (contrary to the general majority which means majority of those members of the European Parliament who are present, absolute majority means majority of all the members of the European Parliament).

This practically means that heads of states and governments have to take a look at the newly elected European Parliament and apart from their own interests and aspects they also have to consider the democratic realities of the results of the elections to the European Parliament. In case of majority of the members of European Parliament coming from conservative political parties, it is probably not a great idea to nominate a progressive liberal or a socialist to the position, because there is a good chance of the European Parliament rejecting the candidate, putting the whole process to square one – which can be very uncomfortable for the leaders of European Member States.

To somehow orient this process, to assist the European Council in their pick, but rather to give additional power to the European Parliament, the past years have seen the rise of an idea not unknown to many Member States’ domestic political practices: the so-called system of “lead candidates” or “Spitzenkandidaten”.

This was an idea that the political groups which are present in the European Parliament are making nominations for the presidency of the European Commission before the European parliamentary elections. After the elections, when the new European Parliament convenes and the European Member State leaders come together in the European Council they know the pool of individuals to choose from – the list of Spitzenkandidaten. They are obliged to nominate the one, whose party obtained the most seats in the European Parliament, then to be elected by the majority of the Parliament. This idea has never really been welcomed by European Member State leaders (it must be added that none of the Member States’ constitutional legal systems have such binding rules, executive candidates are always more of political positions before the parliamentary elections), yet it was working in 2014, as Jean-Claude Juncker (nominated by the European People’s Party earlier) has had the needed support, but it failed in 2019.

Ursula von der Leyen has never been a “lead candidate” or any kind of candidate before on the European level, she was practically unknown. Her candidacy by the European Council was the result of an extremely complicated balancing act of various Member States and political interests, inducing a serious influence by Angela Merkel herself. You cannot put any serious political performance to her name on the European level before the 2019 European parliamentary elections.

Currently, this is one of the reasons of the ongoing tensions between the European Parliament and the European Council and the Commission – the European Parliament seems to be vocal with reviving the Spitzenkandidaten-system it had invented earlier, and Ursula von der Leyen is seemingly smart enough to try to stay out of this trouble. Yet. So far she has not indicated any clear intentions in her current speech about the idea of having herself re-nominated and never ever has she made any comments earlier about the Spitzenkandidaten-system.

She has a good reason: she does not seem to have solid support even in her own political party, only some vague promises between episodic policy-based confrontations with influential leaders of the party, not even mentioning others. Liberal and progressive political formations of the European Parliament are currently gearing up for battle over the Commission’s proposal related to migration and other fields, this usually does not lead to support for high posts. Her recent declaration about not running for a seat in the European Parliament at all, has resulted in additional heavy criticism from the German greens. Additionally, apart from the EPP, no other European right wing political parties support the Spitzenkandidaten-system at all, so their potential support is not given at this time and probably the support of those parties would not only be inadequate for confirmation but also scare away moderate supporters.

Concluding: without being the Spitzenkandidat of the EPP, we probably will not see an other term of Commission presidency of Ursula von der Leyen.

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